Court clarifies when planning permission is required for development of school sites

28th February 2019

Development by schools can often be contentious, with it being common for local residents to be strong objectors to planning applications.

Although good communication with the neighbours is always recommended in advance of any development, ensuring the correct planning permissions are in place reduces the scope for objections, and is key to a smooth development process.

Schools have long benefited from ‘permitted development rights’ which mean that certain development can be carried out lawfully without needing to apply for planning permission.

The scope of those rights can sometimes be a grey area, however last month’s Planning Court decision in the case of Bright Horizons Family Solutions Ltd v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has helped to clarify when permitted development rights can be relied on.

In England, permitted development rights for schools are set out in Class M, Part 7, Schedule 2, of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, which permits “the erection, extension or alteration of a school, college, university or hospital” within the existing school site without express planning permission, so long as various boxes are ticked.

The Bright Horizons case considered what was a “school” for these purposes. Although, on the whole, there is no question that a school’s main site will be a “school” which benefits from these permitted development rights, many independent schools will also have ancillary sites, or part of sites which provide pre-school or nursery provision, sports facilities, or offices for support staff.

It is often these parts of a school’s landholdings which are underutilised and so good candidates for development, which makes the distinction of whether permitted development rights are available important.

The simple fact that a school owns a site does not make it a “school” in planning law. The Court was clear that for a property to be considered a “school”, not only must the primary purpose of the site must be for the provision of education, but the education must be of “school-age children”, meaning that pre-school or post-18 educational facilities would not be considered to be “schools”.

The Court also made clear that the permitted development rights were not available to education facilities which used the word ‘school’ with qualification, for example “ballet school” or “night school”.

Impact on schools

The judgment means that schools need to consider very carefully the nature of their site before seeking to rely on permitted development rights for their development proposals.